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How to Organize Paperwork: Easy Ways for Teachers to Manage Their Files

Teacher overwhelmed with paperwork holding a help sign

There is always a place for every piece of paper that comes your way.

One of the many challenges teachers face is dealing with all of the paperwork. Let's face it: paper clutter can accumulate quickly and be pretty overwhelming. The increasing mound of papers can consume not just your time, but your desk!

Learning how to organize paperwork is not as difficult as it may seem. You may have heard the old adage: "A place for everything and everything in its place." This holds true for tackling your paperwork. It's really that simple. With a few clever tricks and a well-implemented system, you'll be on your way to rid your paper clutter once and for all.

Further Reading: How to Get a Clutter-Free Classroom the KonMari Way

1. Set Up Zones

You must create a space for every piece of paper that comes your way so that you know where everything is and can find it quickly. One way to do this is by setting up zones. Zones are specific spaces that are divided up based on specific activities conducted in the space. Before you decide what zones you want to set up, first ask yourself what level of organization you want. Will you be happy with a few neat piles, or do you need everything visible?

Once you've decided, make a plan to determine your zones. Personally, I am a neat freak, which means that every piece of paper that comes my way must be sorted into a specific zone.

Ultimately, you need to create a system that works for you, but your zones could include a designated spot for incoming papers from students, papers to file, papers for the office, frequently referenced forms, extra copies, parent correspondence, and lesson materials. Some of these zones can even be combined to group similar tasks together.

2. Implement a System

Once you've chosen your zones, select a container, such as baskets or stackable trays, to make it easy to put papers away. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done suggests implementing a system. Allen suggests collecting what has your attention and putting any papers that are out of place where they belong. Be sure to process one item at a time and remove items that are unnecessary or useless.

Once papers are in their specific zone, you'll need to organize them. The easiest way to do this is to create specific labels, so they are easily located. If you're a visual person like me, a labeled color-coded system is ideal. Labels can indicate anything from types of paperwork to stages of progress or urgency. This visual strategy makes it easy for you to stay organized when you're in the flow of work.

Another key point to mention is when you should think about getting organized. The summer is the best time to implement a new organizational system, because this is when you likely have the most time to dedicate to getting organized. It's also a great time to scour online sales or garage sales for cheap organizational supplies.

3. Deal with It Daily

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received was from my mentor during my first student teaching placement. She said, "Make sure you always follow the touch-it-once rule."

This means if you touch a piece of paper and pick it up, you must deal with that paper right then and there. I can't tell you how many times I stood at my desk during my first year and heard her words echoing in my head. If you have a "to do" pile on your desk, you can place the paper there, but if you know you're not good at checking that pile regularly, then I suggest reading it and placing it where it belongs straight away.

Allen also suggests the two-minute rule. If the action takes less than two minutes to do, then do it, but if it takes longer, then delegate it or defer it. If you are going to defer it into the "pending pile," then you must schedule in a daily review of what's pending. Allen suggests using your calendar to help you determine your time available. You want to match your actions with the time period that you have available. For example, if you know you have an extra 10 minutes every morning, then use this time to deal with your paperwork. As long as you are dealing with it daily, then you'll be more likely to stick with your system.

4. Go Paperless

Another option to uncluttering your paperwork is to stop it from coming in. How do you do this you may ask? Go paperless.

According to Open Access Government, many educators are choosing paperless classrooms to more efficiently track progress and administrative tasks and achieve better compliance with data access requirements. Less paper is good for teacher organization, too—it means not only less clutter, but a more effective way to teach and learn.

During the pandemic, I asked a colleague why he liked remote learning so much. His response was simple: "Going paperless." The fact that he didn't have to spend needless hours at the copy machine and could get resources and assignments to his students instantly was a game-changer. Ultimately, what used to take him hours could now be done in minutes, and for that, he was truly grateful.

To get started going paperless, you can leverage digital tools like Google Classroom to send and receive student assignments and Google Drive to store your files. Remind is a great app to communicate important school updates to students and parents, and Chalk helps teachers organize their lessons online. The more digital tools you use, the better you will be at avoiding the paper trap.

Further Reading: Financial Planning for Teachers: 10 Tips I Wish I Knew

What are you waiting for? Learn how to organize paperwork by working your way through each of these steps so you can enjoy a tidy, clear desk.

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